My sleep patterns, never regular, have been awry recently. As a result, yesterday I was up before midnight, returned to bed at about 4.00am, rose again at 8.15am and felt a tad dozy all day.
The cornerstone of my schedule was to be viewing Prime Minister’s Question Time in the House of Commons, which on Wednesdays traditionally forms the meat in the sandwich that is BBC2’s Daily Politics, most often anchored by Andrew Neil. The event was heightened in anticipation by the announcement on Twitter, shortly after 7.00am, that Maria Miller MP had resigned as Minister of Culture, Media and Sport.
I don’t wish here to get into the ins and outs of the issues surrounding Miller’s predicament, but to comment upon the activities of the ‘Westminster Bubble’.
Somewhere mid-morning, an extremely uncomfortable-looking ex-Minister gave a television interview in which she insisted both the decision was hers and that she took ‘full responsibility’ for it [this, of course, despite her belief that she had technically done nothing wrong under the expenses rules applying at the time, as adjudicated by the Commons authorities and overseen by a committee of MPs that ‘reduced’ her sentence to a formal apology for her attitude towards the investigators and a fine of £5,800 – rather than the £45,000 those authorities had recommended].
Her primary concerns were to avoid being a distraction and thereby detract from the good work that the Coalition government was doing. Asked by the female reporter whether she felt that a contributory factory in her going had been a media witch-hunt, Miller’s face froze and, hesitantly in automaton-politico-speak mode, she trotted out again and again that she took full responsibility.
On the Daily Politics show, Andrew Neil skewered Tory Chairman Grant Shapps by pointing out that as recently as the previous night Andrew Lansley, Leader of the House of Commons, had been sent to stonewall in support of Maria Miller staying in her post on the BBC’s Newsnight programme … and then made the bald accusation that the true reason she had finally been obliged to resign was that, in effect, the Government’s ‘campaign’ to rally round and support her had been half-hearted and, ultimately, a failure. In response Shapps blustered away as best he could, but was wholly unconvincing.
Afterwards, at Prime Minister’s Question Time, David Cameron did his best to give a confident and assertive performance in response to Ed Miliband’s rather under-powered attack over the Miller Affair and – for the most part – got away with it. Miliband did manage to connect with a couple of light jabs, i.e. that since the Prime Minister had first adopted the line that Maria Miller had done nothing wrong, he might like to explain why she was now being ditched; and, secondly, he (Cameron) had plainly failed to understand that the British public were fed up to the back teeth with MPs expenses and sleaze scandals and had made a sizeable error of judgement in trying to brazen the problem out.
Later, at 7.00pm, I found myself still watching news & current affairs programming – in this case, Channel Four News. Political editor Gary Gibbon reported live on how the events leading to Miller’s resignation had unfolded behind the scenes at Number 10.
The die was apparently cast when one of Miller’s aides appeared on social media and in a Sky News interview to claim that the ongoing controversy amounted to a ‘media witch-hunt’. The Prime Minister, after consulting with advisers, sent an emissary to Miller to tell her she was now a liability and must go, just before setting off for the Irish President’s state banquet at Buckingham Palace. He then took a phone call from her after the banquet in which she agreed to resign – hence her early appearance on television and radio the following morning (Wednesday).
Mr Cameron, faced with two key events happening that day – PMQs and a meeting with the Tory backbencher 1922 committee – could not allow Miller’s crisis to go on any longer.
Although I find all these intrigues fascinating as examples of British politics in action, the Miller Affair starkly exhibits the shadowy and dark arts by which the political class operates in practice.
Mr Cameron and his advisers made a monumental ‘political’ miscalculation, i.e. that if Miller stuck to her guns that she was happy to accept the bare bones of the outcome of the investigation into her expense claims and made an apology for just the specific of her obstructive attitude towards it, she and the Government might be able to batten down the hatches, ‘draw a line in the sand and move on’, and watch the attendant media storm (if any) hopefully blow itself out after another 48 hours maximum … provided, of course, all concerned stuck to singing from the agreed hymn sheet.
It was a calculated gamble that didn’t come off.
As the morning papers arrived over the weekend at Number 10, to be analysed by the press officers and spin doctors, it must already have become apparent that the media furore wasn’t going to die down within 48 hours. It was likely to run for a good while yet. And this against a background of the MEP elections coming up on 22nd May – and with every prospect of the Miller Affair drowning all government attempts to ‘manage’ its good news (not least about the economy) into media prominence in the meantime.
In short, by last Sunday evening (6th April) latest, David Cameron was fully aware he’d made a huge cock-up by seeking to protect Maria Miller from having to resign from the Government. By then he must have been wishing that he could have turned the clock back a week and make a different decision, viz. “Sorry, girl – forget about the technicalities and the inherent unfairnesses of it all – your situation is now a potential embarrassment to the Government and therefore you must go, and immediately”.
Neat and quick, ruthless even.
However, as a piece of realpolitik – in terms of ‘getting rid of a problem – it would have been a far better and more decisive act than rowing in behind Maria Miller and hoping that the problem would go away.
From my perspective, the eternally-disappointing thing about the above is that it all seems just straightforward common sense. Obviously, not to Mr Cameron and his advisers – of whom, given their accumulated experience of working on the inside of British politics, you might think we could have expected better.
But then again, maybe not.
Perhaps it’s just a matter of so few of them ever having had ‘real’ jobs (i.e. outside politics).
The irony is that – for people supposedly expert in reading the political weather and undercurrents swirling around within the Westminster Bubble – they don’t even seem to be any good at it.